When we first arrived at Roots, a grassroots Israeli-Palestinian coexistence organization, we were all interested in hearing from those involved and engaging in conversation with them. The organization seeks to promote coexistence born out of a recognition that each side is convinced that they are correct, and will not budge from that standpoint. Given that, a sort of “agreement to disagree” can be peacefully maintained among individuals, with relationships built despite the passionate disagreement and with violence reduced.

Rabbi Shaul Judelmen, a leader in the Roots organization, was the first to speak to our Write On For Israel group. As he spoke, I grew increasingly confused about the practicality of his message—“The entire land, from the river to the sea, is Israel. And the entire land, from the sea to the river, is Palestine,” he explained. Yet the message was, nonetheless, one that I was not opposed to—the idea of coexistence. Noor A’wad, representing the Palestinian side of the Roots organization, spoke next. Noor’s original speech was mostly noncontroversial. It was all things that most of us could understand and even agree with. But when we began to ask him our questions, that quickly changed. And here, I, along with many other Write On participants, found myself unable to agree any longer with even the basic principles of Roots.

Not only did Noor avoid most of our questions, repeating the same evasive answers in an attempt to discourage genuine dialogue, but he also let some of his own views slip out that were far more radical than anything he had originally maintained. Over the course of the next few minutes, we heard that terrorists’ families receiving money from the Palestinian Authority does not constitute encouragement or reward for terror, but merely a government caring for its people and helping to solve unemployment. We learned that the comparison of terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinian to the demolition of these same terrorists’ homes is a perfectly valid one, and received an outright refusal to condemn murder or terror or even recognize them as such. When we began to talk, with a translator, to local Israeli and Palestinian youth, we were shocked to hear Hamas (recognized as a terrorist organization by numerous countries and organizations, including Israel, the United States and the European Union), justified by one as being “the IDF of the Palestinians.” If the price of these “coexistence” organizations is a complete denial of reality, a refusal to condemn violence and a moral equation of two entities that are far from morally equivalent, then this price may not be worth paying. But more alarming even than these views and their iteration was the fact that Noor was able to speak convincingly, to hide his views under a stream of uncontroversial rhetoric and assure us that he did not, in fact, hold controversial views. This pattern, unfortunately, I saw mirrored various times in our week-long trip.

It’s frightening how eloquently and convincingly someone can talk, while actually masking extreme beliefs.

Professor Nafez Nazzal and his son, Rami Nazzal, employed this same, seemingly conscious, tactic. Professor Nafez Nazzal has worked at numerous US academic intuitions and was ostensibly a man with much credibility. When the two first spoke, it was not controversial—again, I found myself agreeing with much of what they said, of the need to humanize the other side (on both sides of the conflict) instead of maintaining fear and hatred. But then we started asking questions and that narrative changed—Nafez, unable to contain himself, began to yell (literally, yelling and grabbing the arms of those asking questions) that obviously one needs to expect violence under “occupation.” He originally decried violence—and then began to justify it, coming just short of condoning and praising it. Both men, as had Noor, avoided every question asked, along with a refusal to face reality—“numbers don’t matter,” one shouted when asked about statistics. We walked out of that talk angry and somewhat shaken. These men were not actually advancing what they originally claimed to be. It’s frightening how eloquently and convincingly someone can talk, while actually masking extreme beliefs, and how reality can be utterly denied and conversation stifled in order to do so.

In our visit to StandWithUs, we discussed this very issue. In exploring the pervasive role of BDS on college campuses, we watched and read statements made by many of the movement’s leaders—statements that call for Israel’s destruction, rail against a potential two-state solution, and state the end goal of BDS as an end to Israel rather than an end to the occupation. Yet somehow, this ultimate goal is masked behind the “elevator pitch” of BDS, and unfortunately, behind the narrative, it presents too much of the world, of fighting only for equality, social justice, and democracy. As I saw time and again, people, and organizations, can often hide their true thoughts, beliefs, and incentives behind carefully phrased words and convincing, eloquent phrases. The first step in Israel advocacy lies in recognizing this fact and learning to find the true message hidden in a seemingly uncontroversial, legitimate, and convincing argument.

Abigail Huebner is a senior at Ramaz and is a member of the Write On For Israel class of 2018.